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1958's Run Silent, Run Deep was the last word on the standard submarine picture. During WW2 the studios made movies about intrepid subs doing impressive feats, like entering Tokyo Bay. John Wayne made a pretty good one a few years later about a captain who discovers that his torpedoes don't work. 1 Before the 'sixties there was also Torpedo Run, with its idea that a sub captain might have to sink a ship carrying his own wife and children.
Run Silent, Run Deep has its psychological aspects but mostly goes back to basics. The USS Nerka witnesses a power struggle between its commanding officers, one of whom 'alters' his sailing orders to carry out a personal vendetta. Robert Wise was probably a perfect choice to direct this all-male show. A producer's director for whom the schedule was writ in stone, Wise was also a technically precise taskmaster and diplomatic enough to counter any friction between powerful stars.
The story is a war hunt at sea. Commander Rich Richardson (Gable) lost one sub to the Japanese destroyer Akikaze and for several months has been polishing an office chair back at Pearl Harbor. A request for more duty results in Rich taking a command away from another officer, Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Lancaster). Bledsoe is furious but defers to his orders and Richardson's rank, and outwardly shows no enmity. The lively and boistrous crew is put through its paces when Rich insists that they endlessly rehearse a 'dive and prepare to fire' drill, cutting corners off of the standard procedure. But then Rich reveals a secret: instead of patrolling his assigned area, he's going to return to a place called the Bungo Straits, to seek out and destroy the Akikaze. As few ships return from the Bungo Straits, both the crew and even Lt. Bledsoe may have reason to mutiny.
It's hard to find a more ship-shape sub movie than this one. Gable and Lancaster are in fine form and play well together. With those big-cheese personalities on top, the rest of the all-male crew is on its toes. In a nice move, at least ten crewmembers have speaking roles, giving the ship's complement a variety of types and a gradient of attitudes. Jack Warden is Richardson's faithful squire, who has to be reprimanded for taking his side. Brad Dexter is a sour apple and the first to grouse about the hazardous duty. Joe Maross plays the levelheaded engineer, who quietly expresses his doubts about the mission to Lancaster. In his first screen role, Don Rickles voices the general disharmony through crude remarks. There are green recruits, old salts and a cook played by Lancaster's old buddy Nick Cravat. This time Cravat has dialogue; he commonly played mutes in Lancaster's swashbuckling epics. The larger ensemble helps Run Silent, Run Deep avoid the usual sub movie pitfall of having a three-person crew suddenly shift from jokes to grumbles and back again, whenever the script requires it.
Although nothing like the genuine claustrophobia felt in the foreign sub films The Damned and Das Boot, Robert Wise and cameraman Russell Harlan maintain the feeling of close quarters. Keeping the corners of the frame dark and using slightly wide lenses compensates for sets with one open side, and the camera is placed in a logical interior position where possible. The various drills and mechanical procedures to operate the sub also seem more rigorous than usual.
Finally, the production gives the show the best special effects available in 1958, which really meant allowing the old-school experts sufficient time to perfect shots, rather than accepting the first attempts. The rear-projected scenes on the conning tower have multiple angles and lighting conditions, resulting in a more convincing feel. Howard Lydecker's miniatures are rather large and may have been filmed on sets constructed at the Salton Sea. The relative scale of splashing water is improved, along with the depth of field. The film also avoids the phony underwater shots that in other films often make the subs look like bathtub toys. MGM's Arnold Gillespie and Matthew Yuricich appear to have been borrowed for the production, perhaps only for a couple of matte paintings -- ? I suggest this because special cameraman Clifford Stine probably oversaw the photography of Lydecker's model boats. Lydecker would proceed from this show to perhaps the best-ever (American) films for large-scale miniature warship effects, Sink the Bismarck! and Tora! Tora! Tora! 2
Robert Wise was at his best in technically demanding genre work, where the performances were assured mostly by casting the right actors. Robert Aldrich held the record for keeping aggressive actors in line (male and female) but Wise was certainly no slouch -- he helped Steve McQueen to do his best work, and McQueen had a reputation of being undirectable. Run Silent, Run Deep is a sharp and satisfying war story but we're also impressed by its gallery of well-honed performances. 3
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Run Silent, Run Deep is a clean encoding of this B&W gem that will greatly please its fans. It is far better looking than the old MGM DVD. The sharper image allows us a much closer look at the production details, including every wire and mismatch in the special effects. This of course can be fun in itself. What comes across best is the star contrast between the two male leads, who have different personal styles, and different brands of charisma.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Run Silent, Run Deep Blu-ray rates:
1. Doctors can fix that now.
2. The funny thing about submarine movies is that they all seem to use the same three or four underwater tank shots of torpedoes firing and racing underwater, toward the camera. They must have originally come from (a guess) Destination Tokyo. I think I know how this happened -- miniature shoots frequently run long, and the last shots to get in a sub movie are angles on the torpedo action. And I'll bet that as time runs short, the editor is told to get out whatever stock shots are available. As the cutaways are barely two or three seconds long, the producer and director go for them every time rather than spend days filming new ones.
I know this is true because it happened exactly that way on 1941 -- the torpedo shots at the end are the same B&W stock shots as had been used for 30 years, slightly tinted.
3. In interviews the fine director Wise comes off as a gentle pussycat. In the effects facility for Star Trek: The Motion Picture he was stern, all business, and spoke only through the chain of command. He was like a football coach looking to maximize efficiency, and eliminate anyone who wasn't absolutely necessary to the team.
4. Corrections from Dick Dinman, October 11, 2014:
Hi Glenn, The "stories" about Lancaster needling Gable during Run Silent... are pure fiction. The fact is that after the commercial disaster of Sweet Smell of Success Lancaster was desperate for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster to produce a hit and reasoned that teaming up with Clark Gable in an action film would constitute a certain recipe for popular box office success (which unfortunately was not the case).
The central problem was that Gable, who had been appalled by Lancaster's outrageous and overbearing attempts to steal every scene from Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz, simply refused to work with Lancaster until, among numerous other concessions, promises of "good behavior" were extracted from Lancaster who ultimately treated Gable with great respect and deference during the filming even to the point of firing co-star Albert Salmi after Salmi made derogatory remarks about Gable's acting ability. Cheers, Dick
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